An Understanding of the Heart - Middah Binat HaLev

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Binat HaLev translates as "an understanding of the heart." The word binat comes from the Hebrew root bet-yod-nun meaning "to understand or discern," and lev means "heart."

"I have given you a wise and understanding heart." (I Kings 3:12)

This week's text comes from the book of Kings, which recounts a dream of King Solomon. In the dream God appears to Solomon and asks Solomon what gift he desires. Solomon wisely asks for "an understanding heart" in order to judge the people by distinguishing between good and bad, innocent and guilty.

In Jewish tradition the heart is also the seat of all emotions. There is a midrash that lists over 60 emotions of the heart. Among these emotions: "the heart sees, hears, speaks, falls, stands, rejoices, weeps, comforts, sorrows. . ." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:16). In Judaism, our hearts are the vessels of both our feelings and our wisdom.

Reuven Bulka asserted that it was vital for a person to have an understanding heart in order to absorb Torah. He taught that one can mechanically perform the 48 middot - ethical precepts for learning Torah - but one must really have their heart in it in order for the Torah to be fully integrated. (As A Tree by the Waters, p.254) In other words, if we learn with an understanding heart, we embrace the words of Torah with our minds and souls. An understanding heart changes our learning from a memorization of Torah facts and obligations to an appreciation of Torah as the basis of our lives.

In Judaism there is a clear connection between study and action. Each and every Jew is commanded to set time aside for study. The rabbis recognized the difficulty in fulfilling this precept. To accommodate this commandment, the rabbis added three verses from Torah and two rabbinic passages to the morning service. One of the rabbinic teachings describes leaving the corners of the fields unharvested so that the poor might glean and gather food to eat. It is important to note that the specific amount of the corners was not a part of the commandment. It is left up to our discerning heart to determine how much is enough. In any age this does not make economic sense, but as Borowitz and Schwartz point out in The Jewish Moral Virtures, "whatever involves us, we should let our hearts, rather than our wallets, decide just how much is enough." In feeding the poor or in the fulfillment of any mitzvah we should allow our understanding hearts to decide what is appropriate.

There is an old expression which describes a person who does not fully commit to a task: 'his/her heart was just not in it.' Though not rabbinic, it captures the intent of Binat HaLev. Tasks and commitments done with heart are substantially different than those that lack passion.

To Talk About

  1. How would a wise and understanding heart help Solomon judge the people?
  2. Imagine that you are a judge, what qualities would you desire in yourself? Why? Imagine that you were being judged. What qualities would you want your judge to have and why?
  3. Choose a story from The Cow of No Color: Riddle Stories and Justice Tales from World Traditions by Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin. Answer the question "What is fair?" How might King Solomon, who possessed an understanding heart, have resolved this situation?
  4. Learn more about King Solomon and his wise and understanding heart by reading one of the following:The Flower of Sheba by Doris Orgel and Ellen Schecter (ages 4-8)King Solomon and His Magic Ring by Elie Weisel (ages 8+)What was unique about Solomon's wisdom? What contemporary examples are there of this kind of understanding heart?Reread the excerpt from Ecclesiastes that specifies some of the abilities of the heart. For each ability listed, discuss examples from your own experience. How has your heart heard? Seen? Spoken?
  5. What is the qualitative difference between doing something with all your heart and doing something without putting your heart into it? How do you choose which way to apply yourself?
  6. Do you believe the study of Torah can change a person? If so, how? If not, why not? Explain.
  7. How has the study of Torah changed how you think and behave? Share and discuss.
  8. In the Commentary section, Borowitz and Schwartz remind us that we should let our hearts rather than our wallets, decide just how much is enough. If you applied the teaching "letting your heart decide" to your life, how would your life change? What would you be motivated or compelled to do?

To Do

There is a midrash which points out that the last word in Deuteronomy is yisrael and the first word in Genesis is b'reishit. If you take the final letter of yisrael, the lamed, and the first letter of b'reishit," the bet, and put them together they spell leib in Yiddish and lev in Hebrew, which means heart. From this midrash we learn that the Torah is the lev - the heart of the Jewish people and that it is the heart that holds Torah together.

Remember the midrash by making a Lamed Bet Torah wimple, papercut, or sugar cookies.

Lamed Bet Wimpel

A wimpel is a cloth binding which encircles the Torah scroll and holds it closed. Using a 8" by 6'-9' piece of cloth, fold right sides together and sew leaving an opening for turning right side out, stitch the opening closed. Decorate the wimpel with fabric markers combining images of the Torahs, hearts and the letters lamed and bet.

Lamed Bet Paper Cut

Decorative paper cutting is an Eastern European Jewish art form. Take a square sheet of paper and fold it into quarters. On one quarter create a design which incorporates a Torah, a heart and the Hebrew letters lamed and bet. Cut out your design but be careful not to fully cut through the folded edges. Once the cutting is complete carefully open up the folded paper. Glue the design on to a contrasting sheet of paper.

Lamed Bet Sugar Cookies

  • 3/4 cup margarine, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Cookie "Paints"
    • 4 egg yolks
    • food coloring
  1. In a large bowl with electric beaters or using a food processor, blend the softened margarine with the sugar until creamy, add the eggs and vanilla and mix.
  2. In a second bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder and gradually add to the margarine mixture, blending completely, forming a soft dough. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours or up to three days.
  3. On a floured board roll out dough to 1/4" thickness. Use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut dough.
  4. For the cookie paints, separate each egg and place the yolks in separate bowls, beat until smooth. Add 5 or 6 drops of food coloring and blend until the color is uniform.
  5. Use a pastry brush or new paintbrush to decorate each cookie with a lamed and a bet.
  6. Bake at 350° for 8-10 minutes.